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The Alphabet of Life

The Alphabet of Life

DNA is one of the most powerful clues we have of the existence of a spiritual reality.

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DNA are three letters full of paradox. What they represent remains little understood by the public, yet they are on everyone's tongue. Amid the chatter of popular culture, the truth gets lost that DNA is one of the most powerful clues we have of the existence of a spiritual reality, maybe to the existence of God.

An acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA refers to the form taken by the biological information that directs the production of proteins and other cell components. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick famously described its double-helix shape. The information thus encoded, the genome, influences how a living organism's body gets constructed, though how far this goes, and how it works, are questions that remain obscure.

We talk about DNA as familiarly as we do the USA. The idea that your genes determine your susceptibility to diseases and addictions is a stock theme of popular health discussions. On TV cop shows, law-enforcement officials are constantly using DNA to solve cases, whether new or "cold" -- as real police do.

For a fee, DNA testing can shed light on anyone's genetic ancestry, including whether you have "Jewish genes." There is supposed to be a "God gene" for religious belief in general. And a "gay gene." And so on.

But all this is trivial compared to the largely unheralded insight gained from the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003. The insight is disturbing. It is that while DNA codes for the cell's building blocks, the information needed to build the rest of the creature is seemingly, in large measure, absent.

Consider the hoax "master" genes that supposedly determine the spatial configuration of the front and back ends of creatures as diverse as frogs, mice and humans. As British physician James Le Fanu writes in a fascinating new book, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (Pantheon), Swiss biologist Walter Gehring showed that "the same 'master' genes mastermind the three-dimensional structures of all living things... The same master genes that cause a fly to have the form of a fly cause a mouse to have the form of a mouse." The physically encoded information to form that mouse, as opposed to that fly, isn't there. Instead, "It is as if the 'idea' of the fly (or any other organism) must somehow permeate the genome that gives rise to it."

Such an understanding, of nature driven by a force outside nature, was dominant in biology before Darwin. Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), director of Paris's Musee d'Histoire Naturelle, held that there was an unknown biological "formative impulse," an organizational principle of some kind that directed the formation of diverse kinds of life.

The concept goes still further back. Much further. What Cuvier called the "formative impulse," was called God's "wisdom" by the rabbis. The Bible teaches, "The Lord founded the earth with wisdom" (Proverbs 3:19).

With DNA, there is, in one sense, less there than meets the eye. But in another sense, there is much more. For if DNA can't entirely account for the way bodies are put together, there remains something deeply suggestive about the fact that curled at the heart of every cell there lies a code. How did it get there?

A staple of media coverage of DNA is the story, repeated endlessly, about some scientist or other who's the latest to synthesize molecular precursors of DNA (or its genetic partner, RNA), thus purportedly showing how biological information could have arisen on Earth unaided. The problem with these demonstrations is that they always depend on intelligent guidance, that of the scientist in his lab, thus suggesting the very opposite lesson of the one intended.

The only kind of source we know of that can produce a "functionally integrated information-processing system" like that in the cell is an intelligent source.

In another new book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne), my colleague Stephen Meyer, a Cambridge University-trained philosopher of science, reminds us of the failure of every avenue by which science has tried to explain the origin of the genetic information required for the first life. Explanations depending on unguided material processes alone usually founder on a chicken-or-the-egg paradox: notably, that "specified information in DNA codes for proteins, but specific proteins are necessary to transcribe and translate the information on the DNA molecule."

DNA acts like a computer code, or like a language consisting of letters and words, arranged in specific sequences to accomplish a specific task or convey a specific meaning. As Dr. Meyer observes, the only kind of source we know of that can produce a "functionally integrated information-processing system" like that in the cell is an intelligent source.

As a Jew, I find it intriguing, at the very least, that Jewish tradition anticipated precisely the kind of evidence that Meyer deals with in his book. DNA refers to the letters of a genetic "alphabet" that in the correct combinations encode the diversity of all life forms. Kabbala too speaks of such an alphabet, comprised of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with which God continually speaks the world into existence.

Different combinations of letters produce different creatures. A century and a half before Watson and Crick, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi sought to make Kabbala accessible to ordinary readers. In the Tanya (1796), he writes of how "the creatures are divided into categories [both] general and particular by changes in the combinations, substitutions and transpositions [of the letters]."

Something is out there beyond nature, guiding the destinies of living creatures. Whether we think of it as God or some other unknown agent makes a big difference. But the progress of science from imagining existence as a purely material affair, without purpose, as Darwinian evolution still portrays the matter, to the more advanced description toward which biology increasingly points, is a major step in the right direction.

The writer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, writes the Kingdom of Priests blog at Beliefnet (blog.beliefnet.com/kingdomofpriests).

 

Published: July 12, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) Anonymous, December 16, 2012 4:28 AM

the letter hey

every letter is really made up od other letters. something cool about hey is that it's made of yud and daled, yad or hand the gamatria of yud and daled is 14. count how many folds your fingers have on one hand. and it also goes to show you thateven though it is really easy to fall sometimes ( think of the shape of the letter hey) there is always a way out even if it's smaller.

(16) Hana, July 19, 2009 2:35 PM

See G-d in the mitochondrial DNA

Recently I had a crash course in the inner workings of our cells and the mitochondria - the tiny elements in the cells which govern all the processes of the body. Do you know HOW the food we eat turns into energy in the cells? A tiny flaw in 1 of the hundreds of processes on the subcellular level means that a baby cannot survive. Seeing how many things can go just slightly but fatally wrong, it is G-d's miracle that any of us is alive and healthy!

(15) Anonymous, July 15, 2009 9:43 PM

Simple and Clear

This article was excellent. Thank you. I was just thinking about how to discuss this very issue with a coworker who asked me about my beliefs.

(14) julia, July 15, 2009 12:29 AM

evolution amuses me

So people who believe in evolution alone, starting with Darwin, seem to have jumped straight from there are mutations and evolutions to saying that all life evolves to ensure that the strongest and or most aggressive survive. What if there are mutations, but overall a species evolves in the direction of cooperation or predictable mating behaviors. Ensuring the survival of an animal in the wild may be better served by making it able to predict and respond to it's pack's needs or the distress of it's mate. Being able to rely on the rules of society and behaving in a responsible way towards your distant cousins will probably serve the group, and you, better. People like to think of themselves as the dominant individual in a situation, but this self glorifying directive may not be where genetic mutations are headed, whether the egocentric like it or not.

(13) Dov Yitzchak, July 14, 2009 10:42 AM

Human Genome

If no one knew Hebrew and if the Torah had been written not only without vowels but without any spaces, just letters one by another, how difficult it would be to derive Tanya. It is presumptuous of us to draw conclusions at this point about all genomes, or whether gross anatomy is coded in the DNA. BTW, I am humbled that some among us sense the Divine as easily and pervasively as the light and warmth of the sun; were it so for all. There is no shame in a candle or a single photon of faith.

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